Some thoughts on the halting, sporadic ascension of the Orlando Magic...
*Despite their thorough dominance of Cleveland for the game's majority, an undermining scheme of the collective variety seemed hellbent on destructing the hometown five. And I'm not just talking about the referees.
But, of course, I am talking about the referees. The phantom foul on Lebron at the end of regulation goes down as one of the most egregious "star-calls" in the NBA's long history of egregious star-calls. I've racked my brain trying to find cause for sympathy, but at this stage there can't be any excuse. Lebron tripped and fell forward, and Pietrus performed the smart maneuver by continuing to backpedal, avoiding all but incidental contact and winning the game for Orlando- until the absurd intervention.
I can recognize the pressure of the moment. I can recognize the trend of Lebron being fouled with some regularity, creating a pattern in the referee's game-view. But none of it justifies the complete lack of professionalism shown on that last play; these men are supposed to be experts, and really, what's the point of having them at all if they can't be counted on when the chips are down. It'd be nice if this was an isolated incident, but that couldn't be further from reality. The general incompetence is staggering, at best, and has a suspicious tendency to favor superstars. I'm not going to stump for a conspiracy theory; I think the truth is foggier, and involves a benefit-of-the-doubt philosophy that invariably benefits the Kobes and Lebrons of the world. But something needs to change. If Cleveland had won that game, the tenor of the entire series would change, and the premise on which the Eastern Conference Finals (and by extension the NBA Playoffs) are based would become invalid.
Incidentally, that's exactly what happened with the Phoenix-San Antonio debacle two years ago. To me, that Spurs title is irredeemably tainted.
*Lost in the end-game hubbub was a small validation of yesterday's post: Lebron is not functioning well as a closer. Orlando stumbled in the last four minutes, missing six shots in a row before Lewis' turn-around with four seconds remaining, but King James couldn't capitalize. In fact, he settled for long threes, turned the ball over with regularity (almost double digits!), missed crucial free throws, and generally showed the same fatigue we've seen in games 1-3. The overtime redemption effort, while impressive, couldn't acquit the earlier performance.
I have to admit, I've begun to take a kind of pleasure, possibly schadenfreudic (not a word), in witnessing this pivotal return to Earth. Call it what you will...when the Cavaliers beat the Pistons to reach the finals two years ago, I bought into the changing-of-the-guards paradigm, and Nike turned believers like me into a cult. I'm not sure when the backlash began, but I realized last night, talking to a couple friends, that I'm not alone. The sad thing is, it's not Lebron's fault. We're reacting more against manipulative market forces (the 'We Are All Witnesses' trope) and manufactured image, but the end result is the same: we're rooting against him. Which doesn't mean we want him to fail forever, I think; instead, there's the urge for a humbling process, a distilling of Lebron to a humanized core, and a build-up from that denuded place into a real champion, instead of a commercial mystic-product with no rings and a paper crown.
*The continued 'closer' woes are a gift to Orlando, who colluded with the refs to woo an unlikely defeat. Their collapse at the end of the first half, conceding a 15-3 run to the Cavs, is inexcusable. Van Gundy's refusal to take a time-out at that juncture is still baffling a day later. In the fourth, they pursued offensive options that seemed totally self-defeating...until they weren't. Why let Rafer Alston shoot threes? Horrible idea...until he made them. Why feed the ball to Dwight Howard in the post, where he's totally useless from a stationary position? Horrible idea...until he got pissed and dominated overtime. Which was awesome. But still.
*Situation developing: Dwight Howard has six technical fouls in the playoffs. By a totally arbitrary rule, a player is suspended for one game when he gets his seventh. Which means: should Superman get T'ed up in game 5, he'll have to miss game 6 in Orlando, when the Magic will have a chance (their best) to clinch on the home court. If anything can rescue the Cavaliers, it's this. If I were Stan Van Gundy, I'd be tempted to sit Howard in game 5. His suspension would be an absolute disaster for Orlando and the NBA, another example of a ridiculous bylaw deciding the outcome of a series. But that's basically the league's modus operandi, so you'll forgive fans if the doomsday scenario feels a little like destiny.
*In the what-might-have-been department, it's worth noting that if Lebron's final foul shot had trickled out of the cylinder, there's about a 95% chance Varejao would have tipped it in for the winning basket. In the direct aftermath of the phantom foul, I think that outcome might have led crazed Magic fans to burn the building. At the very least, it would have been a nice, shiny black eye for the NBA.
*That's all for now. I'm predicting a classic tonight between in the Lakers-Nuggets game 5. One thing is beyond dispute: if Denver falters in the Orlando mode, Kobe won't let the opportunity pass. The sniper only needs a moment...